A road trip to New England to celebrate Thanksgiving was an easy decision for us this year. Thanksgiving has been anything but traditional in our home for the past several years, so why not change it up even a bit more? With the kids and Nana on board with the idea, we took off.
Planning a good road trip always begins with a central focus, and in this case, we had two – a family wedding in Philadelphia, PA and Thanksgiving on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. Filling the days between the wedding and our arrival on Nantucket was easy, since New England oozes with charm and most towns are dressed up for Christmas by mid November. The granddaddy of them all is Newport, RI, with its stately mansions built by wealthy Americans during the Gilded Age.
But First, Philadelphia
Malcolm grew up here, and has not been back to visit in a very long time. His mother had not visited in almost forty years. We spent one afternoon touring the city and the other day was devoted to the wedding. Nana wanted to see her former home of more than twenty years, Malcolm wanted to see his old Elementary and High Schools and I wanted to shop the famed Reading Terminal Market. Yes, this is the home of the Liberty Bell and much of America’s history, but Malcolm and I took that tour during a visit in 1994 and chose not to repeat it.If you are visiting Philadelphia for the first time, the historical tour is a must and is highly recommended.
Driving to the family home was a shock for both of them, and the decline of the city was depressing to witness. We were skeptical about the condition of the home, but nicely surprised and relieved when it looked better than expected.
When Malcolm and his father and mother lived here, the front porch was not enclosed as it is today, and the landscape was lush and well cared for, but other than that, the exterior had not been altered. The neighborhood has changed dramatically, but the smiles on their faces show the relief they felt that their family home had not fallen to ruin. The schools Malcolm attended still looked good, but the neighborhoods surrounding them had fallen into disrepair. Of course we speculated about the why of it all, but the bottom line is usually a lack of money and civic pride.
Reading Terminal is still at the center of everything in downtown Philadelphia, and Nana enjoyed a trip down memory lane as she recalled weekly visits to do her food shopping and pick up a few special treats for her son. Vendors here are famous for their steak sandwiches, pretzels, seafood, pastries and fresh produce.
The main event in Philadelphia was of course, the wedding. Armenian families instinctively know how to put on a wedding, and this one was outstanding. It began with a beautiful church ceremony and ended (for us) about seven hours later, after many hours of eating, drinking, renewing old acquaintances and lots of dancing.
With a nostalgic visit and a beautiful wedding behind us, we moved on to the next leg of our New England road trip. Looking for Christmas.
It is easy to find Christmas almost anywhere in New England this time of year, but it is especially apparent in Newport. This is home to the famed Newport Mansions, which were built by America’s wealthiest families during the Gilded Age. They were constructed exclusively for the purpose of displaying wealth and were meant to rival the great castles of Europe.
Most of the homes had families residing in them for no more than five or six weeks per year. Even the largest homes were built with just enough bedrooms for family members and possibly one or two other rooms for guests. When all of your friends own ‘cottages’ nearby, why waste space on extra guest rooms? At 50, 60, and even more than 100,000 sf, those are some cottages. Many of the fine homes were torn down between 1945 – 1973 in favor of building multi-home communities, but the Preservation Society of Newport stepped in to preserve several of historical significance and that is why we still have this slice of American history available to the public today.
The Breakers, The Elms and the Marble House are on the Christmas tour of homes which we took for a fee of $35 pp. Visit the Preservation Society’s website here for information about visiting the homes at any time of the year or for more information about Newport’s Mansions.
The home behind us is the Elms. Construction began in 1899 and was competed in 1901. The founder of Berwind-White Coal Mining Company, Edward J. Berwind, was considered to be one of the most influential men in America at the time. He commissioned the construction of The Elms at a cost of 1.4M. Mr. Berwind and his family spent an average of six weeks here during the summer months. During that time, they threw extravagant parties and at least one which was well documented included imported monkeys swinging from trees on the lawn.
Photography is permitted inside the homes and I took a few shots, but none do justice to the ornate opulence and over the top decorations that adorn these magnificent homes.
This is the Marble house and was built by William K. Vanderbelt in 1892 at a cost of 11 million dollars, or the equivalent of more than $300 million today. More than half the cost is attributed to the 500,000 cubic feet of marble imported for the home. He built the fifty room home as a birthday present for his social climbing wife Alva. She was 39 at the time. Three years later, Alva divorced William and married Oliver Belmont. She didn’t have to travel far to her new home, Belcourt. It is just down the street. Alva maintained both residences and after her second husband died, she built a tea room on the lawn of the Marble house. In her later years, Ms. Belcourt took an interest in the women’s suffrage movement and often hosted rallies at the tea house.
This is the Breakers. It is by far the crown jewel of Newport mansions with over 125,000sf and built at a cost of 7 million dollars in 1895. The home was a status symbol for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President and Chairman of the NY Central Railroad. The original Breakers
conveniently unfortunately, burned down availing Mr. Vanderbilt the opportunity to ‘best’ his brother and sister-in-law Alva who built the Marble House. Hmmm… I should mention that both brothers inherited $70 million dollars upon the death of their father, William H. Vanderbilt in 1885.
The home tours included audio head sets that allowed us to go at our own pace. We started our tour at 10:00 a.m. and finished around 3:00 in the afternoon. We moved fairly quickly and skipped a few of the ‘extra’ stories associated with some of the rooms. American history buffs will want to devote more time to each home as it was very interesting to hear first hand accounts from family heirs who had spent time in these magnificent homes when they were privately owned.
Newport has more to offer than just a drop dead coast line and beautiful mansions and is worth a visit during any season. We stayed at the Hotel Viking, built in 1926 and recommend it for its understated elegance and central location.
After leaving Newport, we traveled to Boston to meet our daughter and her boyfriend who flew in the day before Thanksgiving. It is just a short drive from Boston to Hyannis, where we took a ferry to Nantucket Island and on to our ‘cottage’ – not quite like the ‘cottages’ of Newport, but heaven to us.
We found the cottage, 17 Quaker, on VRBO and booked it for four nights. The main house has two bedrooms and two baths, living room, dining room and full kitchen. The guest house has a mini kitchen, bedroom and bathroom and was perfect for our daughter and her boyfriend. My fantasies of a New England holiday were fully realized at this charming nautical themed property. The location of the home was ideal for a short walk to town for shopping or to dine at one of the many fine restaurants nearby. Use this guide from Trip Advisor to check out reviews.
Nantucket is a summer town and most activities are centered around the great outdoors, with sailing and beach combing high on the list. Prime time on the island is March through May, followed by a swell of tourists from June through August. November offers up a different side of the island’s charm and is all about getting ready for Christmas. It was a special treat for us to attend the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on Main Street and to take a stroll through a Christmas Tree Farm, with fresh evergreens displayed in large bins, just waiting to be crafted into wreaths and garland.
Cisco Brewers is renowned on the island for its craft beer and was a fun stop for a lively afternoon of music and beer sampling. Picnic table seating, drop down plastic sheeting and space heaters created a rustic, winter atmosphere that was just perfect for an afternoon of family merriment.
Windy, cold and with a slight drizzle in the air, we missed the annual Turkey Plunge held on Thanksgiving morning, but this is what it looks like from a previous year. It has been held as an annual charity event since 2002. I was looking forward to taking some interesting photos, but lingering in my PJ’s with a cup of coffee seemed like a better option at the time.
Not to be missed are the iconic lighthouses on this island. You will need a car to get to them, but there are rentals available. You can also do as we did and bring your own car over on the Ferry.
Even in Autumn you will want to visit the beach, and there are many to choose from, but are not all easily accessible. We found this little gem by following our instincts and expecting something beautiful. Sometimes the best moments are the ones unplanned.
Thanksgiving is a state of mind and happiness is what happens when you have love and gratitude in your heart. This was a memorable time for all of us and we could not have wished for a more wonderful experience. We wish you all a season of love and abundance as we head into the most special time of the year – Christmas.
One night in Boston before driving home to Florida left us with the most delightful reminder that Christmas is near – SNOW! We may decorate palm trees in 80 degree weather, but we will always have this memory. What a way to start the season.